Beyond Provincialism
  • Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sic et non • Final of three essays

By Colin Podmore

Reflecting on reactions to the consecration of Gene Robinson, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold commented: “Possibly naively, we thought it was a local event.” But for catholic Christians, the consecration of a bishop can never be of purely local concern. The bishop is, to quote The Virginia Report (1997), “one who represents the part to the whole and the whole to the part, the particularity of each diocese to the whole Communion and the Communion to each diocese” (6.10). And, according to the English report Episcopal Ministry (1990): “In [the bishop’s] sharing in the collegiality of bishops the local church is bound together with other local churches” (para. 351). To be able to exercise this relational ministry, a bishop must be acceptable to, and recognized by, the bishops of the wider Church.

This is why Canon 4 of the Council of Nicaea required that at least three bishops of the province (the immediate manifestation of the Church beyond the local diocese) join in ordaining a bishop, the others having consented in writing and the metropolitan having confirmed the election. Hence the 1930 Lambeth Conference’s stipulation that “the minimum number of Dioceses suitable to form a Province is four” (res. 52): as the relevant Conference committee pointed out, “on the vacancy of a See there will be in the Province the number of Bishops necessary for the consecration of a new Bishop.” Lambeth 1920 had already observed: “It is undesirable that Dioceses should remain indefinitely in isolation, or attached only to a distant Province” (res. 43).

Jesse Zink is therefore quite right: the Diocese of South Carolina cannot properly remain independent indefinitely. To be faithful not just to Anglican but more importantly to catholic ecclesiology, its bishops should belong to a province.

Once litigation in the secular courts is concluded, this could be achieved in several ways. There could be reconciliation with the Episcopal Church’s national leadership — we should always pray for reconciliation leading to the visible unity of the Church, however remote human sinfulness may make that prospect seem. Or the diocese could join the Anglican Church in North America or (less ideally) a more distant Anglican province.

Alternatively, it could follow the Sudan model, to which Zink points, and become a province by dividing into four dioceses. Half of one U.S. state, with fewer than 80 congregations and 30,000 baptized members, might be thought rather small to form a separate province. However, in 1998 the geographically and numerically much smaller Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao was divided into three dioceses (with only 38 congregations between them) and a “missionary area.” This enabled it to become a freestanding province of the Anglican Communion instead of joining the Church of the Province of South East Asia, which was formed in 1996 by the more conservative extra-provincial dioceses with which it had previously been associated.

Hong Kong and Macao had already blazed the trail of diocesan autonomy back in 1971, when the inaugural Anglican Consultative Council meeting agreed that it could ordain women priests. The resolution (moved and seconded by the Episcopal Church’s clergy and lay representatives) was passed by 24 votes to 22 with several abstentions. The ordinations went ahead despite the opposition of the other South-East Asian dioceses with which Hong Kong and Macao was associated and the entreaties of its metropolitan, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who had voted with the minority. After the meeting Ramsey repeatedly sought, by letter and in person, to persuade Bishop Gilbert Baker to hold back, arguing that the vote was too narrow to serve as a basis for action and that the 1968 Lambeth Conference had wanted no action taken before all the Communion’s churches had reported on their discussion of the issue (only eight out of 22 churches and groups of dioceses had done so).

If a small liberal diocese can manifest diocesan autonomy by resisting the counsel of its metropolitan and striking out on a different path from the more conservative dioceses with which it is associated, and can ultimately be divided in three in order to become a province of its own, rather than joining a neighbouring Anglican province, surely a larger conservative diocese could do the same? Whether this course is to be commended is another matter.

But as Zink’s stimulating article suggests, the most important question facing the Anglican Communion is not whether dioceses can exist other than temporarily without being subject to provincial or other metropolitical jurisdiction (in catholic and Anglican ecclesiology they cannot), but whether provinces should not in turn defer to the councils of the wider Church.

Colin Podmore, formerly Clerk to the General Synod of the Church of England, is now the Director of Forward in Faith (UK) and a member of the Living Church Foundation.


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